U.S. travel rules make waves across the pond

/ Source: The Associated Press

European officials accused the United States of imposing unnecessary and overly intrusive air travel security measures, calling on the Obama administration Wednesday to re-examine policies ranging from X-raying shoes to online security checks for Europeans.

The crux of the issue is every traveler's question of how much security is sufficient and how much delay is tolerable — and whether it's time for a review of security measures that have accumulated in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

The U.S. government issued a statement Wednesday saying it would continue to review its security measures "based on the latest intelligence."

The debate flared a day after British Airways Chairman Martin Broughton accused the U.S. of demanding "completely redundant" security checks at airports, such as removing shoes and separate examinations of laptop computers.

Europe should not have to "kowtow to the Americans every time they want something done" to beef up security on U.S.-bound flights, Broughton said.

He won support Wednesday from the owner of Heathrow airport and the British pilots' union as well as several European airlines and security experts on both sides of the Atlantic.

The European Union, meanwhile, formally challenged the U.S. requirement that millions of European travelers undergo online security checks before they board flights to the United States. Europeans are singled out because they are allowed to enter the U.S. without visas.

The EU says the system is burdensome and raises privacy issues over how long such personal data is kept and used.

The debate over security has special resonance in a country that was the home of would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid and where authorities discovered a plot to take liquid explosives aboard trans-Atlantic flights. Discovery of the plan prompted an immediate ban on taking most liquids aboard flights.

Speaking to the annual conference of the U.K. Airport Operators Association on Tuesday, Broughton suggested the U.S. security requirements imposed on Europe for U.S.-bound flights are more stringent than those on U.S. domestic flights.

"America does not do internally a lot of the things they demand that we do," Broughton said in comments quoted by the Financial Times and confirmed by British Airways.

"We shouldn't stand for that. We should say, 'We'll only do things which we consider to be essential and that you Americans also consider essential.'"

However, former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday all domestic and international travelers in the U.S. are subject to the same shoe and laptop screening and other security measures.

"I can understand that people don't like waiting on line. I don't like waiting on line," Chertoff said.

But until there is sufficient and reliable technology to screen shoes and liquids, for instance, Chertoff said, it is better to operate in a world with a little inconvenience in exchange for secure aviation travel.

In a statement, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration said the U.S. "works closely with our international partners to ensure the best possible security. We constantly review and evolve our security measures based on the latest intelligence."

Still, security experts and several European airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, Iberia and Finnair, welcomed Broughton's comments, saying it was time to re-valuate the many layers of time-consuming airport security.

"We need to keep passengers safe, but there's also a whole bunch of security rules that could be eased out," said Chris Yates, an aviation security analyst in London.

The requirement to remove shoes for screening, for example, was "the knee-jerk reaction after Richard Reid." The newest metal detectors would sense any metal such as wiring in shoes, he contended.

Many of the security rules are in place because of history rather than real risk, agreed Todd Curtis, a Seattle-based security expert at airsafe.com.

"Shoes get special attention because of their potential to hide explosives, but there are literally thousands of other items that do not get such screening," Curtis said.

He noted that laptops must be taken out of your bag for inspection, but not notebook computers, which have much more capacity than most shoes to carry explosives.

Britain's Aviation Minister Theresa Villiers said the government planned to give airport managers more freedom in determining how to meet security goals. However, she dismissed Broughton's complaint about shoes. "If procedures are considered to be redundant we would lift them," she said.

Colin Matthews, chief executive of BAA PLC, which owns Heathrow airport, said regulations are set by European and U.K. authorities as well as by the United States, and that these overlap.

"We could certainly do a better job for customers if we can rationalize them," Matthews told the BBC.

The debate hit a nerve with travelers like Londoner Jonathan Burgess, 65.

"Technology should be able to detect anything I might bring in, so why should I have to half undress in order for them to make sure?" Burgess said.

Donald Smith, 48, of Providence, R.I., agreed.

"I actually just flew in last night. I think the whole process has gotten slightly our of hand," he said. "I appreciate the concern, but for things like taking off shoes — shouldn't the machines be able to detect anything that could be potentially dangerous?"

Associated Press writers Robert Wielaard in Brussels, Jill Lawless, Greg Katz and Gillian Smith in London, Eileen Sullivan in Washington, Malin Rising in Stockholm and Dave Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.